Ilan Ramon's experiment continues successfully, the construction of a new space station is under way, the Japanese lunar lander is back in operation, and a farewell to the Mars helicopter. This Week In Space.
Another Success for the Israeli Experiment
This week marks 21 years since the Columbia shuttle disaster, which claimed the lives of all seven crew members, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. Symbolically, this week yielded encouraging results from one of the experiments Ramon initiated during that mission, aimed at capturing "lightning sprites'' and other atmospheric phenomena occurring above storm clouds. The experiment is being led by Prof. Yoav Yair from Reichman University, in collaboration with "Sky Mission," a company established concomitant with the participation of private astronaut Eytan Stibbe in the inaugural commercial manned mission to the International Space Station. Stibbe himself managed to capture stunning images of the sprites – colorful electrical discharges occurring above the clouds during lightning storms. Capturing them in real time is exceptionally challenging as they endure for only a fraction of a second.
As in previous missions, Yair briefed the astronauts of the Ax-3 mission before their space journey, providing guidance on how to conduct the experiment. He meticulously analyzed forecasts to determine the locations of impending lightning storms and issued daily instructions to the astronauts from the control center in Houston, specifying when and in which direction to attempt to photograph the storms. "The current mission commander, Michael López-Alegría, who also led the Ax-1 mission alongside Stibbe, quickly grasped the concept well, and his photography results improved with each observation," said Yair in an interview to the Davidson Institute website. "Though not all requested photos were captured, whoever of the crew was available to photograph what we asked, and I am happy with whatever we can get from these missions.”
The observations from the ongoing experiment support Yair's assessment that there is sometimes a connection between lightning storms occurring at significant distances from each other – a phenomenon best observed from space. "Even if the storms are hundreds of kilometers apart, we can capture lightning within fractions of a millisecond. Though the physical mechanism behind this 'lightning synchrony' remains elusive, it appears to be a real phenomenon." Yair is actively investigating this phenomenon in collaboration with Dr. Lior Rubanenko from the Technion, and with the help of artificial intelligence algorithms. "In the coming months, we plan to publish at least one article on the subject, challenging the accepted notion that every lightning storm is autonomous.
Spectacular disintegration events that are very difficult to capture. A red and blue lightning sprite seen near the edge of the solar panel of the space station in a photograph captured above Australia on January 24 | Photo: Michael López-Alegría, Axiom Space
Another Cosmic Stopover
Starlab Space, an American company focused on developing its own space station, has recently entered into an agreement with SpaceX for the deployment of their station into space using a single launch, eliminating the need for assembly in Earth orbit. The companies did not publish the details of the agreement, the cost of the launch, or its estimated date, but stated that the launch would be carried out by the Starship spacecraft, which is still not operational, and is expected to occur before the end of the decade – coinciding with the time at which the International Space Station is planned to cease operations.
Starlab Space was formally established in January of this year, as part of a collaborative effort between Voyager Space, an American company, and Airbus, a European company. At the end of last year, the two companies signed an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) regarding the joint development of a commercial space station, which is intended to provide European entities with access to space research opportunities even after the International Space Station ceases operation. The planned station will include a spacious complex with work and living areas, to which a service module will be attached to provide energy, propulsion, and life support systems. In light of the station's considerable size, with a diameter exceeding eight meters, the Starship is the only launch system capable of transporting it into space.
Last year, another American company, VAST, also partnered with SpaceX to launch another, smaller private space station. Additionally, Axiom Space, another American company, is in the process of developing a commercial space station based on the existing infrastructure of the International Space Station. Several other companies are also in the early stages of creating their own space stations, making it highly likely that the coming decade will witness several commercial space stations orbiting Earth, offering a diverse range of opportunities for experiments, research, and even space tourism.
Intended to ensure ongoing access to space related activities for European organizations following the conclusion of the International Space Station's mission. The planned Starlab Station | Illustration: Starlab Space
Revival of the Japanese Lander
The Japanese lunar lander SLIM successfully achieved a soft landing on the Moon about two weeks ago. However, it faced a challenging moment during the landing attempt on sloped terrain, resulting in a turnover on the slopes of a crater. As a result, the solar panels on its upper part were unable to face the Sun, and the Japanese Space Agency had to temporarily disable its instruments due to battery depletion. As anticipated by the Japanese team, as the lunar evening approached, and the Sun lowered over the horizon, the solar panels received sufficient light to reactivate some of the instruments. The lander is equipped with cameras and spectrometers designed to help analyze the composition of the soil and rocks in the landing area.
It is still unclear how long the lander will be able to operate in this mode. Originally, it was supposed to operate for about two Earth weeks, equivalent to one lunar day, but it was not designed to endure the lunar night. Researchers are likely to attempt reactivation during the next lunar day, and if successful, it would be a pleasant surprise.
Capable of operating even while lying on its side. A picture composed of images from the SLIM lander, highlighting one of the rocks it is intended to analyze | Source: JAXA
Farewell to a Pioneering Helicopter
NASA's space agency has decided to retire the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, following the discovery of damage to one of its rotor blades. It is estimated that the helicopter was damaged during landing on its last flight. The impacted blade, constructed of carbon fiber, was found to be broken or cracked, likely upon impact with the ground.
Ingenuity, originally designed for five technology demonstration flights, landed on Mars alongside the Perseverance rover approximately three years ago. A few weeks later, it successfully executed its maiden flight. After NASA's decision to extend its operational period, it completed a total of 72 flights, reaching a maximum altitude of about 26 meters and covering horizontal distances of hundreds of meters. It became a vital component in the mission planning of the rover. In total, the helicopter accumulated over two net hours of flight time (equivalent to 128 minutes of flight) and covered a horizontal distance of approximately 17 kilometers. Following its success, NASA is expected to include similar flying vehicles in future missions and is currently examining the development of larger helicopters that can carry payloads and potentially even humans.
A distinguished career. A video by NASA's JPL lab about the Mars helicopter -